Tuesday, December 17, 2013


I joined the Marines when I was eighteen years old. I wasn't crazy (officially diagnosed as such, anyway) and I wasn't drinking heavily (at the moment, at least). The factors that brought me to this choice and the things it said about me and about the world I lived in are worth considering, even if you've never considered doing anything of the sort.

First, however, I must acknowledge that there are good reasons that you may be thinking you've possibly stumbled upon someone else's blog. If you only know me from the present day, you know about 35lbs more of me than there was then, and not so much in a good way. In those days I was a competitive--slow, but competitive--swimmer, and would therefore have been much more likely to survive the substantial physical demands than I'd be right now now. Even if you are still having trouble picturing it, I expect that you've become somewhat accustomed to this aspect of the Slacker's Guide (see also: here and here) and are waiting to see how this one turns out. Like most things I tell you in my opening paragraph, the story is both just as simple and just as complicated as your first impression suggests.

Some of the factors in my decision:
  1. Outta here - I know I wasn't the only teenager to take inventory of his surroundings and determine that anywhere else would be preferable--even as this was absolutely not true. I know this because sometimes I ask students where they plan to go to college, and instead of naming a university and/or a major they just say "FAR, FAR AWAY." If you're wondering, yes, I did end up going to college directly across the street from my family's home, and yes I now live five miles from that same home. This was simply not how I though things were going to turn out from my perspective at eighteen.
  2. The G.I. Bill - I grew up with the belief that the cost of college tuition was going to be mine alone to shoulder. There was a lot of talk throughout my childhood about my Dad having pulled himself up by his bootstraps, and how he put himself through college selling magazines door-to-door, and how he had to drop out from time to time when he would run out of money. It seems I mistook his origin story for life-plan advice and family fiscal policy.
  3. Pay - Even pretty good after-school jobs (of which I worked two throughout high school)  paid like $5 an hour when I was a kid. However, gas was like $.79 a gallon, so it wasn't such a bad wage as it may sound to you. In fact as you can see here minimum wage then is pretty much what we have now--though still quite a bit less than at its inception. As a result, the prospect of pulling in $646 every month was pretty impressive to me. I tended to think of big purchases as stuff like '72 Ford Mavericks, mountain bikes, and new stereos back then--each of which came out to pretty much $646 a piece--so 2/3 of a grand a month seemed an inexhaustible supply of money to me.
  4. Adventure - I joined to see the world. No joke.
  5. That sword comercial - Marines wear a special garter to keep their socks up and their shirts neatly tucked. I don't know that this particular aspect appealed to me per se, but I was drawn to the whole attention to detail thing. I'm generally a mess in my housekeeping, manner of dress, and conversational/writing style, but as a musician I appreciate the importance of sweating the small stuff. The idea that the Marines could turn a person into something worthwhile in a few weeks can be fairly attractive to a Slacker looking to someday become something else. 
  6. Music - The armed forces all have serious music ensembles, but only the Marines have The President's Own. The fact that I would never have qualified for this group until I'd been to conservatory was a detail I was willing to overlook. My immediate plan was the Commandant's Own drum and bugle corps. With a fairly typical trumpet player's ego, the long odds of actually qualifying for this select ensemble never crossed my mind.
  7. Shock value - Adults don't always realize that every "You're going into the Marines?!?!" a young person hears can reinforce this decision as a great idea.
  8. Uncle Joe - Most people have an Uncle Joe in their lives. Mine was Captain of the State Police. He lived in one of the nicest houses I knew as a kid--he even had a pool. He was a Marine, in the The Big One, and had a Marines flag flying proudly on a big pole outside his back porch. I don't know what Uncle Joe's influence was on my decision, as it was entirely subconscious, but it no doubt was a factor.
  9. The ASVAB - My school had us all take the military's aptitude test--I think because they were paid a little for each of  us who did. Taking the test meant that the Army (and all of the other service branches) thought I was smart, and I like people who think I'm smart. However, as my father said at one point in the process: there are lots of measures of smart; using the Army's isn't necessarily the best.
  10.  The Recruiter - My recruiter was a master salesman. They all are, I guess, but he was either especially good or especially well-suited to me. He convinced me that it was mostly about getting in shape, seeing the world, getting paid, impressing girls, and getting out of town. He was especially virtuosic in small talk, flattery, bullshit, and banter. He made it very clear that all of this was my decision, on account of I was 18. He made it very clear that my asthma wouldn't be a problem, on account of...I'm not sure on account of what. 
Some would blame the recruiter entirely, but he wouldn't have gotten anywhere with me if it weren't for all of the rest of it. I had a girlfriend at the time who lived 30 miles away, who I managed to visit several times a week (remember: $.79 per gallon gas). She and I didn't even get along that well, but I was so dedicated to a lifestyle different from the one I was living that I was willing to sign on for anything. And sign on, I did. Without telling my parents. In fact, I was at the MEPS station before I had discussed my plan with anyone. 

What's wrong with any of this? A few things, and it took me a long time before I'd worked it all out. Much of this started trickling in right away, as people tried to talk sense to me before I was to ship out. Most of the rest was shared with me after my plans fell apart. Some of it I'm still trying to work through.
  • Age of consent - When should a young person really be permitted to make decisions without anyone's say-so? Actually, the answer is never. Every decision I've made without consulting someone turned out to be a bad one. I still fall into this sometimes, and I still pay dearly every time.
  • Mission creep - As the father of my best man said to me at one point, the armed forces have two purposes: to kill people, and to break things. Everything else they do--the parades, the shiny shoes, the disaster relief, the academy football games--is in some roundabout way in service of killing people and breaking things. Much of it is to recruit new people and to justify the vast budget required to fulfill their primary purpose.
  • Personality replacement - I was told, in fairly blunt terms, that the goal of Basic Training was to break down the person I was, and replace it with the Marine's improved version. Still, I was sure that I was going to be able to get through the whole thing with my old self intact. I knew lots of people who'd been through the military (and lots of imaginary people, like the characters on M*A*S*H) and you wouldn't be able to tell. Eventually it was pointed out to me that most of these people were draftees. People who entered the military on a volunteer basis--regular Army, career soldiers--almost never came out the same. 
  • Fighting - I was picked on as a kid, but I can't say that I'd ever been in a real fight. I didn't consider this to be a problem, because I didn't really associate the Marines with fighting. I grew up in the longest sustained peacetime this country has ever known. I came to believe that one could enter the armed forces and never take up arms. From my point of view, they'd have plenty of Marines who didn't play the trumpet to do the shooting in places like Grenada and the Falklands--even if we'd been pulled into that conflict. The fact that the Marines expected me to go to 6 weeks of rifle school after basic training should have alerted me to the fact that they might want me to shoot at someone during my service.
My military adventure ended as abruptly as it began. I had scheduled a whole series of doctors' appointments in the months leading up to my ship date, including an allergist. She was the first doctor to put "asthma" on my chart, even though I'd been using an inhaler for years. When the Marines did a thorough scan of my medical records, suddenly the asthma that wasn't a problem for the recruiter was a problem for the Marines.

I fought this pretty hard for a few days. I made calls up and down the chain of command, and so did my recruiter. Actually, I'm not so sure he made those calls. It became obvious pretty quickly that I was not as important individually to him as it had seemed throughout the process until that point. I was part of a quota system and I'm guessing that I didn't count against him for being disqualified for medical reasons. His time was much better spent finding new guys than trying to solve my problem. One day I just stopped fighting, and walked across the street to register for classes at LVC--joining a semester already in progress.

Still, the truth is that I needed the Marines, or something very much like it. I wasn't ready for college, or at least I didn't seem to be ready for college in the spring of my senior year of high school. I needed a buffer between life in high school and life that really mattered, and something like military service might have provided it. In other words, I needed an entity that does all of the things that the military does except for the one thing that it's really there for. I wanted to work hard for tuition money and to develop some skills, maturity, and discipline before I figured out what I really wanted to do in life. I wanted a way to make a living playing a musical instrument and a way to to travel on someone else's expense account.

If there is an entity like this to which I'm not giving proper credit--Peace Corps? AmeriCorps? City Year?--it needs the funding and access to high school students that the U.S. Marine Corps had to me. We spend $7.7 billion on recruiting, $50 billion on bands,  and 22 billion on family housing in the armed forces. Whatever I should have done instead of the Marines needs to have been obvious, available, and well-promoted. Instead, we  continue to absorb kids like me into the military industrial complex who just wanted an alternative to college for a few years.

You'd be forgiven for finding all of this all a little whiny. First, things worked out great for me in the end. It turns out I was ready for college, more than I though anyway. Far from flunking out in my first semester, I got out of there in four years with a degree, a job, and a wife--the Triple Crown of collegiate pursuits, as it were. As the military is obviously a much more dangerous neighborhood than it was in 1989, we need alternatives even more desperately. Today's students don't have the luxury of the delusions regarding what the armed forces may be asked to do that I suffered (enjoyed), and yet many of them make the choice I did. Perhaps they don't really have a choice.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Big Deal

As I begin writing this post, the President and the Congress are engaged in an epic battle over the Debt Ceiling and the Shutdown. I'm confident that by the time I get around to finishing it, given my typical pace, they will have since resolved the whole thing. Here's a tip: if you're getting your breaking news from this blog, I recommend you find a more unbiased, timely, and professional news source. Like The Daily Show. Still, whenever it is that you are reading this, I'm confident that the President and the Congress are, or soon will be, engaged in a epic battle over something else. It seems to be the way we do things now.

Disclaimer: There should be absolutely no cross-curricular application of what I'm going to say here--no larger metaphor I'm trying to draw (for that sort of thing, see: here, here, and here). If you see some correlation to negotiations with your teenage kids or your dealings with car salesmen that's fine, but I didn't put it there. If I were in another profession or circumstance, I might write a piece on how these big showdowns are just like teacher contract negotiations, but alas no. The only lessons that are to be gleaned from this are applicable to the President and the Congress, and nowhere else. Absolutely. <Ahem>


The current impasse (or the one that is current to me, perhaps some time in your distant past), like many others we've seen, has certain characteristics. These characteristics make a solution at once very difficult and entirely inevitable. Until the impact of the disagreement is felt more strongly than would be the sacrifices required to resolve it, the conflict will live on. As soon as the current discomfort reaches a tipping point, the conflict will be resolved. The plot-line follows, loosely, the same progression as any disaster movie, thriller, or season of 24 that you've ever seen:
  1. The approach - It all begins when some eccentric wonky-type sees a problem way off on the horizon that spells certain doom. The problem is, this eccentric and his colleagues are always seeing problems way off in the distance. For the vast majority of people, it's impossible to tell that one time when doomsday is actually coming.
  2. The very near approach  - By this point most insiders see a real problem brewing, but they're still putting on a brave face in public. Investigative journalists are starting to ask difficult questions, and writing lengthy pieces in The Atlantic, but the public has no idea and/or can't be bothered.
  3. The point of no return  - Everyone is quite sure there will be an eleventh-hour reprieve. That's because sometimes there is, and the whole thing ends here. Actually, it never really ends here but rather is tabled until the inevitable sequel.
  4. The deadline - The deadline that everyone has been dreading arrives.
  5. The breach of the deadline that must never be breached  - The deadline goes whooshing past, as deadlines are prone to do (see also: here) and: ...nothing. Well, not nothing, but nothing quite as cataclysmic and impressive as was predicted. Mostly, people go about their business (or stay home and begin the long wait for their paychecks), doing work that must be done. Many essential things are still running just as before anyway, so it becomes a bit of a hard sell that this should matter to people.
  6. Hopelessness - A period of calm terror ensues, during which no one can see a way out. People start to theorize about the last possible moment when a deal could be done before lasting damage is done. Then they start to theorized that the world might just literally come to an end before an agreement can be reached. At this point, more discussion is held in the media than face-to-face, which reduces the level of discourse past people's elevator pitch, to their cable's been cut and the elevator is plummeting a hundred floors to the ground pitch. 
  7. Two men (or women, but mostly men--maybe that's part of the problem) enter - At some point, it always comes down to two guys locked in a room. It's possible that two guys (or girls, maybe preferably girls) locked in a room can solve any dispute, but it's possible that all of the theater involved in the previous steps is entirely necessary to get to this point. Whichever it is, large groups can rarely develop a tone civil enough to make any progress, leaving a couple of people to do all of the work. Group projects almost always turn out this way (see also: here).
  8. A deal emerges - Typically, everyone hates it. No one got everything they wanted, and the whole charade feels like a waste of time. Maybe it had to go to the last minute. Maybe it had to go significantly beyond the last minute, but while some will declare defeat, no one can declare victory.
  9. Lessons are learned - No one ever wants to repeat this whole thing again, so everyone makes plans to do things differently next time. These very plans sow the seeds of the next crisis.
  10.  Meanwhile - Some wonky eccentric is warning of the next cataclysm.
And suddenly, everything is back to normal--which is to say FUBAR. The "fix" will take us more or less to Groundhog Day--which is a fitting day to begin reliving this whole thing. The Republicans are smarting from what they perceive as a loss, which means they're either going to go back to their home districts and shoot a whole lot of rounds of ammunition into something, or they're going to take their aggression out on us somehow--expect the House to call quite a few hearings in the next weeks until they get this out of their system. Meanwhile, the Democrats will likely overreach by trying to fix climate change, campaign finance, or immigration. Then, this effort will inevitably get delayed by one or more of them becoming embroiled in some kind of bumfuzzled campaign finance ethics scandal, or getting caught having sex with a whole lot of interns and/or prostitutes--maybe by accident.

Meanwhile we'll be writing back-pay checks to all of the furloughed workers--without ever being able to recoup the income they would have generated in National Park fees, etc., or the economic activity they would have engaged in if they had been going to work during the whole mess. This means that the Republicans scored one real victory--they managed to prove that the government is wasteful and functions badly--mostly by making it more wasteful and nonfunctional.

Before we all go on a national bender to erase this sad chapter from our memory (actually, since you're living in the future, maybe you've already done that and are just beginning your recovery), there were a few little tidbits of wisdom exchanged during this whole thing that must right now be called out for the nonsense they really are. Here are some examples of the kinds of things you heard during this crisis, or any other since then, and the reasons you have a moral obligation to shout these people down:
  • It doesn't really matter - Wingnuts (like me) have more in common with wingnuts on the opposite side of the issues than we do with people who can't be bothered to care. If you don't have an opinion on this stuff, I'm sorry, but I see that as a character flaw. I believe the other side was wrong to do what they did, and wrong in their entire reasoning behind doing it. I do, however, identify with the experience of seeing something so horrifyingly, awfully wrong that you are willing to do just about anything to stop it. In fact, if we'd had our own Boehner during the run-up to the Iraq War, we may not be in the fiscal quagmire that is at the root of the whole budget mess that keeps nudging up the debt ceiling.
  • Fair and balanced - It's tempting, and seemingly reasonable, to take an "everyone should take a deep breath and negotiate in good faith" stance. While I do understand how the House Republicans feel, that doesn't make them at all right. The fact is, balanced is rarely fair (which you may have read before: here). The problem with the both-sides-have-an-entirely-reasonable-point nonsense is that sometimes one side is wrong. News outlets and neutral parties have a habit of finding the middle ground between the sensible center and the completely insane extreme. This may be balanced, but it's not fair.
  • Compromise is a virtue - I believe that the President's default setting is compromise. However, last time he compromised on the Debt Ceiling he got us the Fiscal Cliff and the Sequester--which we're still dealing with. Those were terrible outcomes, and worse, they taught John Boener's right flank that they should get a shiny new toy with each must-pass bit of legislation. That said, this needs to be a limited lesson-learned. If the President and/or Sen. Harry Reid decide that they will never negotiate on anything ever again, we're equally screwed.
  • Compromise is always the right answer - Nope. Observe:
    • May I punch you in the face?
    • What?! No!!
    • Uhm, okay. Maybe just a slap?
    • No!
    • Nuggie?
    • I said no.
    • Come on, lets work this out.
    • You're not punching me in the face, or anything like it.
    • Why won't you negotiate?
  • So what, as long as they got paid - Messing with a person's paycheck is serious business. Even though it was obvious early on that there would be retroactive pay--even for those who weren't reporting for work--having no money is expensive. Anyone who has ever screwed up bank balances or credit card payments knows that fees and penalties that add up very quickly, and a problem with one account can make it more difficult to fix the others. The "non-essential" workers are Americans, so their savings were statistically low, and many already had their incomes reduced because of Sequestration. In addition, there is the whole uncomfortable business of bosses getting paid while workers don't. Many of the people doing this work aren't doing it just for the money, but money is a way of communicating value and it's possible that things are a little awkward in a lot of workplaces right now.
The real fallout from all of this can't be seen right now. The shutdown dragged a serrated blade through the government, establishing some of it as essential, and the rest of it as non-essential. It was like the Sequester, in that it did not discriminate between good stuff and bad stuff, just stuff that happens to be on one part of the ledger compared with another. People could reasonably ask why we have any non-essential parts of government in the first place. People could reasonably ask why certain things were deemed essential, and others not.

My worst fear is that people won't ask these questions. If the "end" of this standoff comes as a relief, that's a big problem. Republicans have real concerns about Obamacare (mixed in with some complete nonsense). Democrats figured out that they're not entirely powerless, even when Republicans really want to get their way. They may or may not do good things with this discovery. To play the part of the wonky eccentric for a minute (okay, maybe I do that a lot of the time), this is the time to work on the fundamentals that led to this crisis. If war is God's way of teaching Americans geography, maybe near fiscal collapse could be God's way of teaching us civics. Maybe a grand bargain on the budget, a legislative fix for Citizen's United, and even a way of making polluters pay for their pollution could happen right now, when the world isn't about to end. I'm all for getting things done at the last minute, but it's not always the best time to engage in productive conversation.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Tri As I May

I recently completed the Marshman Sprint Triathlon. If you're doubled over with laughter (as my students were when I told them this), have chosen to quietly wait for a better punchline, or assume that I must be lying, please allow me to first define these terms--in reverse order, if you don't mind.

Triathlon - Technically, any collection of three sports could be called a triathlon--perhaps tennis, backgammon, and rock climbing. In the Winter Olympics they have something called the biathlon, where you cross-country ski and shoot a rifle (not at the same time; though that would be pretty interesting). Therefore, triathlons could conceivably involve skis and guns, plus ice dancing or something else entirely. Duathlon is actually totally different than biathlon, in that it is a variation on triathlons invented by bicyclist/runners who really hated the swim--more on that a bit later. All of that said, triathlon pretty much refers to swim-bike-run events. The reason you're so suspicious of my opening sentence is that you're picturing an Ironman (not to be confused with Ironman). This was not that.

 Sprint - Unlike the Ironman, the Marshman is only a 1/4 mile swim, a 12.5 mile bike, and a 2 mile run. I think it's called "sprint" not because the pace is always so speedy--even the winner took almost an hour (not exactly a sprint, in the normal sense of the word) and the last people to finish took more like 2 1/2. Rather, I think they wanted a euphemism for very short that wasn't to...uhm...diminutive. Sprint sounds much better than mini, tiny, puny, or micro. Athletes can be a little touchy about such things.

Marshman - Seems to be sorta like wedding anniversaries, where there's a sliding scale at work. For weddings its Diamond, Gold, Silver, Wood, and so on all the way to Paper. Go ahead and check the link; I'm not kidding. For triathlons, it goes in descending order of  hardness--Iron, Bronze, Nickel, Glass, Ice, Grain, and finally Marsh. At least we were ahead of the Marshmallowman Triathlon and the Creampuff Triathlon.

As so often happens to me with Big Events (see also: here, here, and here), this experience has yielded a few thoughts. Here are some: 
  •  On motivation -The worst thing about triathlons is riding your bike in a wet swimsuit. The second worst thing is the fact that the person doing the work and the person demanding the work are the same person. I think the 5k and the baby sprint triathlon have become so popular because running (and biking, and swimming) for exercise is pretty lonely and boring business. When you're your own coach, the coach and the athlete may both be Slackers. If so, having a long term goal and some standard by which to measure your progress can be helpful. Even in the race itself there is a moment where you ask yourself "am I doing all that I can," and you answer yourself "yes." And you're lying. I'm not talking about literally going to your limits and beyond, or any such nonsense, but even with a timing chip strapped to your ankle it can be very difficult to determine if you're doing your best.
  • On eating - Diet and exercise are two things that are very often conjoined, and usually in a sentence that will attempt to ruin your fun: "You can avoid type II diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, bad posture, a saggy lower lip, nausea, vomiting, lethargy, poor self esteem, and whatever else through dietandexercise." Truth is, I took on exercise because I didn't want to do anything about my diet. I enjoy ice cream, and doughnuts, and steak, and french fries, and beer--sometimes in wonderful and sinister combinations. The circular logic goes like this:it might have been to my competitive advantage if I'd dropped some of the two and a half stone that I'd packed on since college, but I got into exercise so that I wouldn't have to do it through diet.
  • On adult beginners - I started playing the guitar at age 26 and the violin at 30. I took my first tennis lesson at 40, and I started doing triathlons (see also: definitions above) at 42. Starting new things as an adult is difficult, frustrating, and sometimes highly embarrassing. Still, if you don't do this, you're pretty much limiting yourself to the things you learned to do when you were a kid and were still allowed to start something new.
  • On teams - Many of the participants were part of teams, identifiable by the jerseys that were barely legible as they went zooming past on their bikes. I wasn't part of a team. In fact, I've never been on a team of any kind, unless you count swim team--which isn't so much a team as a group of individuals whose scores get added up at the end. However, my brother also competed in this event. By "also competed" I mean that he pretty much saved my sorry hide at numerous opportunities, from when I fouled up my registration and had to sneak in at the last minute, to finding a place to park that didn't require that we stand around in the wet grass for an extra hour at the end waiting for the last of the contestants to cross the finish line. I don't really know what the other teams do for one another, but I can tell you that I was very fortunate to have mine.
  •  On specialization - I'm not a bad swimmer (among bicyclists). I'm an okay cyclist (among runners). I'm a pretty good runner (among people who are sitting on their couch). In fact, I've made my living by being a pretty good singer among pianists, and a pretty good pianist among school teachers. In other words, if you're not going to be especially good at any one thing, try to surround yourself with people who are very good at one thing, but not your "specialty." If this isn't working, change specialties--I was a bass drummer my junior year in college, in part because J. Thomas Seddon was a better trumpet player.  
  • On time invested - The next logical step in all of this is an Olympic-distance tri, followed by a half-Ironman distance, followed by a full Ironman. No it's not. One of the biggest obstacles to this pursuit, and things like it, is time. Cramming enough workouts in the three discipline into an already full life, even to do just the wussy sprint distance, involves shirking lots of responsibilities. I have a friend who played golf until he had kids, when he switched to tennis. I think of golf as an older guy's sport compared to tennis, but he found that he could get his fill of tennis in a couple of hours, while golf took the whole morning. My bike rides take +-45 minutes, where an Iromnan-distance ride would take at least ten times that, even at my 10-mile pace.
  • On swimming - The swim in this particular race isn't exactly like a swim as I would have thought; it's more like a bar fight in the water. About 120 (out of the 400 people who finished the race) guys got into the water for the first group, and all spread out nicely along the wide starting line. In the first stretch of the swim, everyone was to swim around a pylon and then angle back toward shore. This meant that the entire field was battling for the same position, immediately next to the pylon. I was never really interested in contact sports, and I was never especially curious about what it might be like to be part of a Shark Week feeding frenzy. The swim provided me with both perspectives anyway.
  • On biking - There were guys who passed me riding $8,000 bikes. We own four cars, the sum total value of which isn't much more than $8,000. A significant portion of what you're buying at that level is a reduction in weight. As mentioned above, I'm pretty sure that I could more quickly shed a few pounds of me than earn enough money to shed the equivalent weight in bikes. One bit of solace, though: each guy who flew by me outfitted for a Tour de France time trial was a guy who swam slower than I did--see also: "specialization" (above).
  • On running - I did a brief stint as a runner when I was in, like, 8th grade. Why? Well, I had gone halvsies with my parents for the hottest pair of shoes going at the time: KangaROOS. These sneakers weren't only the coolest fashion choice available, they also happened to be fairly serious running shoes. Since I had also recently acquired the other very important status symbol for my demographic at the time--a Sony Walkman--becoming a runner was the logical next step. It was going okay, with fairly steady improvement, and a few minor aches and pains until I read somewhere that running ruined your knees and hips and other joints. Continuing to do something that was ostensibly healthy, which also hurt a little, and which was going to forever wreck my body was something that not even nice shoes and a Walkman could overcome. Like so much medical, dietandexercise, and relationship advice this running-is-bad advice was only a passing fad. I still have plenty of room for improvement in this portion of the race, but I did manage to hobble to the finish.
I had a great time doing this, and certainly plan to do it again. I'm not, though, ready to become a true evangelist for this activity and those like it. I spent a few days after the event pretty sore, and spent part of the race itself in some real pain--it was one of those mornings following overnight temperatures in the 40s, and older muscles and tendons really don't like being pushed to their limits in the cold. I've suffered no lasting damage from this, but the whole idea of taking up competitive athletics in one's forties is tricky business. If I had actually injured myself, and maybe pushed through an injury, I might have been forced to give up exercise for an extended time, which would be highly counterproductive.

On the other hand, having something to work towards--other than earning visits to Twin Kiss and Fresh Doughnuts--puts you out there on days when you don't feel like doing it, and encourages you to take the longer route when you could as easily take the shortcut with no one but you knowing the difference. Still, I'm much more ambivalent about the newer and more trendy ways that older people are attempting to permanently injure themselves--i.e. mud runs and other military boot camp styled events. In order for exercise to be effective, some degree of suffering must be endured. In order to keep doing it into even more advanced age, this suffering must be reasonable. As evidenced by the link above (and again: here), I'm not the only one putting serious thought to this question. It's all a matter of small choices--"which gear to downshift to before attempting a hill?"; medium choices--"do I even want to go out today and do this?"; and big choices--"maybe bariatric surgery and be done with it?" Sometimes making the right choice can be helped along by having something to work for, which in my case was the particular distinction of becoming a Marshman. Not to be confused with a Marshman.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

There's No Home Like Place

I re-read Angela's Ashes this summer. This is noteworthy for two reasons: 1. It is a powerful but deeply depressing book that many sensible people don't get through the first time. b. I don't read all that much, so I almost never re-read anything--I may be the only serious Harry Potter fan who has only read the books once.

I came to re-read it because it was one of the options for my daughter's honors English class. She selected a different deeply depressing book from among her options--apparently the theme for 11th grade English is "you don't have things so bad, really." Angela's Ashes was therefore sitting around and sometimes you read a book because it is nearby. 

In related (trust me, it's related) news, a while ago my wife accidentally volunteered to be the coordinator for the HOPES emergency homeless shelter. Not the coordinator for the whole program of course, which houses people in churches for the entire winter, but for the two weeks last February during which our church took its turn. If you've never accidentally volunteered for anything, you may be wondering how this is possible. Generally speaking, it comes of signing up to be on a committee or board, stumbling onto a sub-committee, and then getting caught daydreaming while the assignments are being handed out. In order to make it seem that you have been paying attention, you heartily agree to the next thing suggested, which is inevitably the idea of you becoming the head/executive liaison/chief content officer of the one and only project this committee will take on for the year. Perhaps you've done this as well, and thought it was recognition for your tenacity and vast leadership skills. Oh, yeah, it could  be that too, I guess.

Since I happen to be sleeping with the coordinator, it was rather necessary for me to take on a shift at the shelter. This despite having a more-than-full-time job, a graduate school class, and a fairly small baby. This sounds like a complaint, but it's not. Everyone who took a shift had something in his/her life that makes sleeping at a homeless shelter difficult, and many of our parishioners took four shifts or more.

I started a post last winter about the homeless shelter, but never finished it (it is, after all, The Slacker's Guide to School--you should be shocked that anything ever makes it up here). Angela's Ashes renewed my thinking about wealth and poverty, so here are a number of issues as seen from both perspectives:

What does it mean to be homeless? -
  • Angela's Ashes - The McCourts lived in a variety of bad housing situations--each smaller and/or more squalid than the previous. They dealt with fleas, flooding, rats, and sanitary sewer circumstances devoid of both sanitation and sewage treatment. They stayed with close relatives for a few nights and a more distant relative for a longer stretch. They always had a roof over their heads, but it was not always certain that this was worth what it cost them--especially, it turns out, the "free" option. One can't read these accounts and not see that some sorts of regulations (e.g. one privy per household, rather than having the entire lane carrying their buckets to just the one) could have made a big difference.
  • HOPES - One of the reasons that we have so much trouble counting the homeless is that circumstances can change very quickly for each individual. We all think we would recognize a homeless person if we encountered one--mostly by the large cardboard box and the little sign asking for help, but it doesn't look this way for the most part around here. In our rural/suburban county there is such a thing as "home-insecure." A person who stays a couple of days at a time on friends' couches is sorta homeless. A woman and her children who stay with her boyfriend, at least during the times when he isn't drinking so much that he becomes violent,  is sorta homeless. A person who is living in an apartment from which he has already been evicted, or a house that's already in foreclosure, is sorta homeless.
What does it mean to be poor? -
  • Angela's Ashes - The family passed through a series of increasingly desperate means of financial support. From low wage jobs, through the dole (Unemployment), to public assistance (Welfare), to the St. Vincent DuPaul Society (yeah, we have that here too), to begging at the priest's door for table scraps, and so on. Each level brought with it its own level of shame, as well as a series of hoops to jump through. At each level there was some relief from the moment's desperate circumstances and a sense of relief that at least they hadn't reached the next level. This was inevitably followed by reaching the next level. 
  • HOPES - Some of the guests have jobs. Some have cars to get to those jobs. Some have iPads, most have mobile phones. These are not people who have reached rock bottom, but what they all have in common is that they will go through the daily hassles placed before them to get a voucher that permits them to sleep on the floor in a church social hall. For everyone there, a decision has been made that that this is preferable to any alternatives they have. Before anyone would begrudge them this, he/she should consider going through the same process for the same reward. That said, setting policies for this program is a delicate balance of making sure that no one gives up and just sleeps on the streets, nor does anyone find it so simple and comfortable that they don't do anything to try to make more lasting improvements in their circumstances. This sometimes boils down to surreal conversations about whether we should provide pillows and whether the graham crackers can be name brand or not.
What is the effect of vices?-
  • Angela's Ashes - Okay, so vices aren't such a good thing for any of us--for a definitive, scholarly, and very funny treatment of vice in general, I recommend The Book of Vice: Very Naughty Things (and How to Do Them). For people close to the edge, though, they can be dangerous in an entirely different way. Malachy McCourt (the pater familias in Angela's Ashes) had a drinking problem. Worse, he had a very specific kind of drinking problem that not only led him to drink to excess, but demanded that he show up at the pub with the entire week's wages (or dole money, or assistance, or...) and buy drinks for everyone until all the money was spent. Also, even though there wasn't always enough money for bread, and almost never enough for meat and eggs, Frank noticed that his parents always managed to have cigarettes.
  • HOPES - There are very strict rules about paraphernalia for vices--prescription and over-the-counter drugs, alcohol, tobacco, firearms (all possible weapons, really)--and a check-in procedure to enforce the rules. This may be in part because it is a council of churches that runs the program or it may be to try to keep destructive behavior that often accompanies these behaviors out of the shelter. It also may be, in part, because it's helpful toward getting people to volunteer their time to help others who are not misbehaving themselves. 
What about depression? - 
  • Angela's Ashes - It's never called "depression," but it's clear that Angela suffered from it. Actually, I guess it's clear. Her life events are so terrible that anyone would show emotional scarring. However, I guess the loose definition I'm using is that her reaction to her very real grief and impossible circumstances caused further degradation of her family's circumstances. Long (and gut-wrenching) story short, she spends lots of days in bed staring at the wall,when her children desperately need her.
  • HOPES - I have nothing at all here. All of the guests that I dealt with were in remarkably good spirits. They joked with each other, and with us, and displayed enormous patience in dealing with the fact that they knew the system much better than the volunteers. Wherever and whenever they deal with their own difficulties, it isn't in the shelter. Maybe that's just one more hardship of living in the shelter.
What about kids? -
  • Angela's Ashes - At one point in the book, Angela sends her husband to work in England. Since there is a war on, England has something like negative unemployment at the time, however that's not the only reason. Angela does this as the form of birth control available to her. It was Frank's conception that brought this couple together, it was the life (and, tragically, death in some cases) of the children that dictated many of their choices, and it was the decision to not conceive any more that finally effectively ended the marriage.
  • HOPES - There are provisions at HOPES for moms with kids, but no provision for dads with kids. There are programs like WIC and CHIP that are meant to help mothers, children, and mothers with children. Even so, being homeless with children must be 6.02214129(27)×1023 times harder than being homeless on your own. I worked out this calculation based on how much harder it is to live in a home with children as compared with without, and plugged in the new variables. 
What about neatness? -
  • Angela's Ashes - The McCourts were, as portrayed via the reactions of visitors to their home, were very poor housekeepers. Still, Angela does make an effort to keep her family decently attired--even when that meant darkening their feet to hide the holes in the socks. At Frank's school, there were kids with shoes and kids without shoes. At one point, Frank's dad tacked on new soles made from bike tires to keep his sons in the "with shoes" category. The problem with this was that the kids didn't know which category to put them in--with shoes or without, and so they got picked on by both camps. Frank's aunt--from whom he'd gotten no love and only very grudging civility previously--took out a loan at one point to buy Frank work clothes. Working your way into the next level often requires having the means to look like you're already at the next level.
  • HOPES - If you're picturing hobos, you're wrong. There is certainly some variation in personal hygiene, as there would be among most gatherings of guys, but the guests are not universally shabby. One of the younger guys had perfectly clean clothes and immaculate sneakers, which he cleaned the night I was there, and probably every night. Another guest had a precise and quasi-ritualistic way of setting up his sleeping area. Others looked a bit more like Willy Nelson or Michael Moore, but keep in mind, those guys are millionaires. The room where they slept did take on a certain funk--sort of a potpourri of men, the disinfectant/deodorant spray used on the sleeping mats, and residual tobacco smoke. Still, the total effect was way-short of a high school locker-room during football season--or worse, a drum and bugle corps uniform in August. It made me think of the degree of organization required to manage this lifestyle--a bin at HOPES, perhaps a locker at the Resource Center, pockets, a backpack for the times in between. If you think about how much thought goes into keeping everything straight during a day at Hersheypark, imagine what it's like to live like this all the time.
What about hunger? -
  • Angela's Ashes - Frank McCourt rhapsodizes for half-a-page on what he would do if they ever ended up flush enough that he'd be given his own egg for breakfast. Mostly it seems he and his family existed on fried bread, tea with sugar, and the occasional treat of toffee from the candy store or a lemonade at the pub.
  • HOPES - Lots of the guests came in with grocery bags of snacks. "Grocery" is probably the wrong word, since it's really convenience stores we're talking about. Everything in these bags was white, fluffy, salty, sweet, and delicious. Recently it was calculated that the McDonald's double cheeseburger is the most bountiful food in human history. Fast food and junk food may be lacking in nutrients and contribute to heart disease and so on, but it represents the best values in terms of calories per dollar available. These folks probably burn many of those calories jumping through the hoops put forth by the various aid agencies. In this country, it's the rich people who eat the leafy greens, the whole grains, and the un-processed vegetables. If you can't cook anything, you need to eat HoHos. For the Slacker's Guide to Food, see also: here.
What about healthcare? -
  • Angela's Ashes - McCourt's book demonstrates that simply getting older was quite an accomplishment for people in his life circumstance. Three of his siblings didn't survive until elementary school, and Frank himself faces a life-threatening case of typhoid. Some of this can probably be ascribed to climate (which Frank's father is quick to blame), some to sanitation (see the first item, above) and some to diet--even today in Ireland, a grilled tomato at breakfast and some chips with the fish can represent a full day's vegetable offerings. Those fortunate enough to live into old age occasionally may have wished they hadn't. Hard work (e.g. delivering coal, working in mines, etc.) has in fact killed a great many people--despite what you may have been told. Frank watched hard working men all around him work until their bodies simply failed them.
  • HOPES - We do a better job of providing healthcare to the very old and the very poor than we do the rest of society. This means that the population at the shelter did have some access to healthcare--even if much of it is provided in emergency rooms. This is a good thing, considering the percentage of them suffering from diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and so on. It's difficult to manage chronic illness when you're homeless, but I guess it's difficult to do quite a lot of things.
Part of the delay in finishing this post has been the effort involved in drawing it to some kind of conclusion. What exactly is a Slacker to do in the face of these insights? Try hard in school?(!) See also: here.

My working definition of a Slacker is someone who has more to work with than he/she typically applies. One of the reasons that we live this way is that we like to keep something in reserve for when things really get serious. We are fairly certain that we won't end up in the circumstances of the McCourts or the HOPES guests, because just before that moment we'll really put on the steam. For a while in high school I was fairly lukewarm on the idea of college, and pondered the economics of heading straight to work from high school. What I didn't realize was that for every tech genius who skipped college (or dropped out) and quickly became a billionaire, there are thousands who are similarly intelligent, but do not find their niche in the vast marketplace of smart under-performers. As alarming a prospect as it may be to put effort into high school, how much more so is the now infamous McDonald's budget? It turns out that trying to get by on the kind of job (or even two of those jobs) available to those without a high school--even college, these days--education is much harder than charming a nice girl into letting you copy her homework.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Schooooool's Out. For. Summer!

By the time you have spent some time in the teaching profession (perhaps not very much time at all), someone will tell you that you're very lucky to have your summers off. When people say this to me, I reply that I'm not lucky; I chose this.

You see, schoolteaching is not some mysterious profession that no one knows very much about, with bizarrely high levels of pay, filled with glamour and intrigue--you're thinking super spy. Or CFO. Or actuarial scientist.

Other than our parents' jobs, teaching was probably the first profession we were confronted with as children, and the costs and benefits were as obvious then as they are now: 1. Teachers got pretty good parking spots--actually, the teachers in my elementary school had to run out at recess to feed the parking meters. We were told that they were monitoring us through the PA system, but now I wonder. The more I think about it, the more I wonder if they may have just been using this as an opportunity to nip over to the teacher's lounge for a smoke (yes, youngsters, teachers used to smoke in the faculty room--from what I understand, they also used to smoke in the classroom before that). 2. They had six different outfits that they wore in a relentlessly repeating order (plus one special one for extra special occasions). 3. They had special text books with all the answers in them, and 4. They had summers off.

Unrelated side-note: teachers also had one of the only job titles that we knew of as kids that didn't have "man" as a suffix (e.g. police-, garbage-, fire-, spider-) which meant that it was one of the only professions suitable for girls. Even in make-believe, we tended to relegate the girls to jobs that came with dresses. For more on gender, see also: here and here.

Since we all knew the deal with teachers from very early on, why is it that people seem so shocked when the folks who went to college for teaching (or, as is the case with lots of my friends--went back to college for teaching after doing something else for a while) don't go in to work over the summer?

I don't know the answer to this, but I can tell you that there is a significant difference between "not in school" and "on vacation." Both are pretty cool, don't get me wrong, but they're not the same. I think the problem stems first from a misunderstanding of vacation.

So, The Slacker's Guide to Vacation:
  1. The Relaxing Vacation - This is the image that pops into lots of people's minds at mention of the word--and possibly the reason for their ire at the idea that teachers spend the entire summer this way. Basically, we're talking about living inside of a Corona commercial. To be done correctly, it helps to have money (see 6., below), but it's not absolutely crucial. Floating on an inflatable raft, in an above-ground pool, outside a double-wide trailer is pretty relaxing too, provided no one is asking anything of you.
  2. The Relaxing Vacation with Children - Come on, are you kidding me?
  3. The Adventure - I use this as an all-purpose euphemism for any vacation that doesn't go exactly according to plan. When your brakes catch fire descending the Rockies--adventure. When it takes seven hours of driving, a harrowing trip across the Cross-Bronx Expressway, and an hour on a diesel-powered-seasick-inducing ferry just to put your feet in the sand--adventure. When you spend forty-five minutes going the wrong way on the turnpike because there's just that much space between exits--adventure. When you get shaken down by a fake-deaf Indian girl outside the Gare du Nord train station and you don't know how much you just gave her because you still can't work out the exchange rate on the fly--adventure. Some people probably set out to have adventures, but we have usually been able to find them quite easily without trying.
  4. The Paris Hilton Adventure - This is a term coined by Michael Pollan's wife for the the week he spent working on a farm researching his book for The Omnivore's Dilemma (see also: here). People who have had quite their fill of the Relaxing Vacation sometimes prefer to do something fairly arduous--think: cattle drive--that any normal person would consider work. If you actually work for a living, this is probably not going to be your thing.
  5. The Christian Paris Hilton Adventure - Because good work needs to be done in this world, and because there are lots of good religious kids who aren't going on normal spring break or senior week, an entire tourism industry has grown up around the idea of do-gooder tourism. When it works, it's quite a wonderful thing, but The Onion had an interesting perspective on ways in which it may not work so well. From a more legit source, one of the authors my wife worked with reported in his book that a different group of these folks had painted the same orphanage every year for the past five. Need and availability don't always meet up perfectly in this, even when everyone's intentions are valid.
  6. The Rich Person's Vacation - The Relaxing Vacation goes even better if you have lots of money. I don't have lots of money, but I did see The Thomas Crown Affair and would be willing to give it a try.
  7. The Family Vacation - You did this one when you were a kid, and some families don't ever really give up on it. The basic bargain is that the patriarch and/or matriarch finances the whole thing and everyone tries to get along--even though the kitchen is very small, there's never enough hot water, everyone else's kids are poorly behaved (which makes your own children behave poorly for the first time in their dear little lives), your brother-in-law has taken up drinking quite seriously, and no one gets the room they want. In other words, it's just like being part of a family, but not at home. 
  8. The Staycation - Generally, the idea of staying at home and trying to have your vacation there is a terrible idea.You still have all of the incomplete projects, the reminders of other incomplete projects, the messy areas of the house, and your normal chores to attend to. However, if you have a very good reason (like you're under house arrest, or your pet-sitter cancels at the last moment, or you're pregnant enough to have morning sickness but not pregnant enough to tell anyone you're pregnant) it could work. Just throw a Somebody Else's Problem Field over all of the housework, arrange for a free trial of HBO, and spend the money you would have on a hotel at a restaurant that you normally couldn't afford. It won't work, but it will help to motivate you to pack up the car next time.
  9. The Couple's Getaway - While this can involve driving down the coast for a weekend at a quaint little B&B in wine country, it can also involve taking the turnpike to the nearest Holiday Inn. The most important goal is to finally have some quality time with your spouse that doesn't end with the kids banging on the bedroom door or your mother-in-law dropping by to give you one of the cantaloupes that were buy-one-get-one-free at Kroger.
  10. The Tour - If you enjoy spending most of your time in transit (planes, trains, and/or automobiles) with little snippets of time in between looking at stuff, allow me to recommend The Tour. It tends to be the kind of thing that one does when trying to be very efficient about crossing items from a bucket list, and not as efficient about actually enjoying things. My family and I have seen some cool stuff this way, but there is a little car over in Ireland somewhere that none of us would ever want to get into again.
  11. The Debauchery Tour - This can be combined with other styles of vacations, including The Relaxing Vacation, The Staycation, The Couple's Getaway, or even The Family Vacation--assuming you've chosen your family wisely. In simple terms, it's using vacation as an excuse to drink much more than you normally do, eat much more beef, bacon, cheese, and ice cream (possibly in one delicious combination) than you normally do, and perhaps lift your top for strangers if they ask nicely enough. This sort of thing is strongly associated with the young, since the rest of us would be forced to return to our real jobs with a case of gout,  gallbladder attacks, and/or very interesting tan-lines/sunburns. Guess what: even so, it's not entirely reserved for the young.
This entry began with a confusing conversation I had with the truck driver who comes to pick up horse manure at our farm. After an hour of pushing shi stuff around with a bobcat and getting much more of this stuff in my teeth than exactly necessary, he and I were chatting and he asked if I was on vacation. "No," I said, confused by the question while he seemed very confused by the answer. You see, nothing on the above list (except maybe The Paris Hilton Adventure) comes close to describing how I spend most of the summer. My part-time job may not be entirely typical, but it's not at all unusual for teachers to have some sort of extra work over the summer. Whether it is grad school, or teaching summer school, or babysitting our kids--I know it's not babysitting if it's your own kids, but believe me, there's a reason that people pay good money for this service--most teachers are not on vacation all summer.

And that's a choice, too. My related sales pitch for this profession isn't that you'll spend two months of the year doing nothing. It's that you'll spend two months of the year doing something different that makes you eager to go back in the Fall. I always return to my classroom a bit sunburned, with a bit of poison ivy, and with very sore shoulders and back from the final push to get everything finished in the last week or so. I also return with a lot more appreciation for what I do than I had when I left in June, and increased appreciation for the folks who do this stuff twelve months a year.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Forty-Nine Shades Too Many

I recently read Fifty Shades of Grey. In fact, there was a little sign on my classroom door for a few weeks that announced this fact. As you might guess, it garnered a whole lot more attention than the book that followed it. Before we go any further, let me take care of some business:

SPOILER ALERT: Like other Slacker Guide book discussions (see also: here and here), I am assuming that you have either: read the books involved; don't intend to read the books involved; or (in this case particularly) aren't allowed to read the books  involved. I am therefore entirely insensitive to divulging elements such as plot (if Fifty Shades had such a thing) or other details that may ruin the experience if you simply haven't gotten around to reading a book published in 2011. While we're at it: Vader is Luke's father and Leia his sister; Snape and Dumbledore were working together; in Fight Club--never mind, can't talk about Fight Club; Sam and Diane eventually do it; and in The Crying Game...well, I'll let you check that one out yourself.

ADDITIONAL DISCLAIMER: If you've no more than heard of this book, you already know that it is impossible to discuss it without fumbling into the territory of sex. You won't be subjected to anything especially graphic, but if you're my student, boss, priest, or anyone else who doesn't, for example, regularly hear me use the "F" word, you may want to avert your eyes. By the way, you may have noticed that I've left my daughter (the older one of course, the younger one doesn't read at all yet) off the list of folks who may want to turn away. Two reasons: (a.) She doesn't read this blog; and (2.) She's heard me use the "F" word lots of times. Plus, she has already been subjected to stern lectures on this stuff more than she ever thought necessary. Her eyes are, I'm quite certain, already averted.

In addition to the obvious reasons (see: ADDITIONAL DISCLAIMER, above), I read Fifty Shades of Grey because there are certain cultural forces so ubiquitous that it's difficult to function in the world if you are ignorant of them (see also: Deliverance, Mean Girls, The Princess Bride, Jaws, and certain seasons of Saturday Night Live). I also read it because I was forced to admit here that I hadn't. This made me feel like a Slacker--and not in a good way.

Fifty Shades began as Twilight fan fiction. It's not surprising that someone read Twilight and decided it was very much in need of some actual sex. More broadly, though, this got me thinking that to some degree all fiction is fanfic. We have spent all of human history retelling the stories that were first told around the campfires by our ancient brethren and sistren. The fact that Fifty Shades of Grey is a descendent of Twilight is no more or less remarkable than the fact that Twilight is a descendent of Vamp, a distant relative of Nosferatu, which was a takeoff on Mary Shelley, who was more or less telling the story of Vlad, who was in his way acting according to a script handed to him. This all-too brief history entirely skips the best vampire series ever, which includes You Suck. We are all just players on this stage, and there is nothing new under the sun--including the first of those little quips stolen from Shakespeare, and the second one lifted from the Bible.

Another famous example of this retelling thing is West Side Story, nearly a scene-by-scene update of Romeo and Juliet. However, at the end of West Side Story, in contrast to Romeo and Juliet,  Maria considers turning a gun on everyone (including herself) but ultimately chooses not to (Sorry: SPOILERS!). Rather than a private and tragic suicide, Maria contemplates a very messy mass-murder/suicide. Distinctions such as this in the two plots makes all the difference. West Side Story doesn't end on a happy note exactly, as many versions of Orpheus do--if composers are to be believed, the masters of the underworld are known for taking pity and letting you have your way, even when you fail to uphold your end of the bargain--but it is at least a more optimistic ending. What a piece takes and discards from the original is very telling, even when it just tells you that the composer wanted to put a happy song at the end so that people would know when to clap.

Likewise, similarities and differences between Twilight and Fifty Shades tell us what this one reader took from Twilight and what she felt could be improved upon. E. L. James may not be every reader, but she is much more Stephenie's target audience than I am, and her choices tell us something. Here is a side-by-side comparison (well, it would be side-by-side if I could get Blogger to let me do columns):

  • Male protagonist (Edward):
    • Old money, somehow coupled with a troubled and underprivileged childhood
    •  Enigmatic
    • Gorgeous 
    • Fit, but not too many muscles 
    • Some hangups about food, rather thoroughly explained
    • Vampire
  • Female protagonist (Bella):
    • Clumsy 
    • Drives a hip, but clunky truck
    • Thin, but eats what she wants and rarely exercises 
    • Seems to have no interests or skills to speak of
  • Relationship:
    • Based in inequality--he claims that she has power in the relationship, but it doesn't seem this way
    • Abstinence porn
    • He consistently overcomes her physically, and she is only moderately troubled by this
    • He is wealthy, but she doesn't care about that, even though:
    • She does seem very impressed by his car, his home, and his decorating sense
    • He is beautiful, and she really cares about that
    • Progression of desire overcoming good sense
    • They appear to be of similar age, but aren't
    • He wants to eat her
    • He seems perpetually unsatisfied with the type of physical intimacy she can engage in
Fifty Shades of Grey:
  • Male protagonist (Christian):
    • Old money, somehow coupled with a troubled and underprivileged childhood
    • Enigmatic
    • Gorgeous 
    • Fit, but not too many muscles
    • Some hangups about food, not entirely explained
    • Not a vampire (note: I only read the first one, and didn't pay 100% attention throughout, but as far as I know, Christian Grey is not a vampire)
  • Female protagonist (Anastasia):
    • Clumsy 
    • Drives a hip, but clunky Volkswagen 
    • Thin, but eats what she wants and rarely exercises 
    • Seems somewhat willing to put aside her interests
  • Relationship:
    • Based in inequality--he claims that she has power in the relationship, but it doesn't seem this way
    • Porn
    • He at times overcomes her physically, and she is fairly troubled by this
    • He is ├╝ber-wealthy, but she doesn't care about that, even though:
    • She does seem very impressed by his cars, his home, and his decorating sense 
    • He is beautiful, and she really cares about that
    • Progression of desire overcoming good sense
    • They are of similar age, but don't appear to be
    • He wants to beat her
    • He seems perpetually unsatisfied with the type of physical intimacy she can endure

There is some concern that easy access to pornography is doing no less than reprogramming the minds of young people. Even if it doesn't, it can certainly warp their concept of what an enjoyable sexual encounter looks like for normal humans. Heaven help young couples who try to reenact what they see in contemporary pornography--the attempt is very likely to result in disappointment or minor injury at best, and possibly a hospital stay and/or grand jury indictment at worst. Someone on my Twitter feed said something to the effect of "Porn is full of lies. No pizza delivery comes that fast, and no woman..."

Fifty Shades must be taken to task for roughly the same thing. Just like in Twilight, the fact that Christian Grey makes up for being generally awful to her by being occasionally especially nice is not good. The fact that he is generally deaf to her needs and desires is not entirely counteracted by occasionally meeting her halfway. The fact that near the end of the first book she gets the strength to walk out is completely undone by the fact that she's immediately contemplating returning (also, the knowledge that there are two more books in this series give us a hint that this relationship isn't over). Fifty Shades may have set out to explore the deepest fantasies of one particular woman. As it becomes an increasingly important part of our culture, however, it has the potential to hard-wire the deepest fantasies of those who are just discovering what such things are.

A related concern is the impact of the Girls With Low Self-Esteem craze that started some years ago. Apparently, this aesthetic has made an impact on the dance floor at school functions. A friend of mine who chaperoned prom this year spent some of her time walking around trying to curb the grinding. Though it made her feel fairly old and un-hip, she did so out of concern that these girls, who were hiking up their formal dresses and performing acts that one would be a bit bashful requesting from a professional, would be going back to school the following week to engage these guys in class debates and to spike volleyballs on them in gym class. How does the exchange of power on the dance floor not influence the exchange of power in other aspects of their lives? Every teenage dance craze has puzzled and appalled the generation before them, but the concern here isn't just that it's lewd; it's what it says about the state of negotiations in male and female power.

The gender power dynamic in Twilight and Fifty Shades plays a major part in the development of the relationships in each book. Part of what makes them exciting is the idea that a woman can be so knocked out by a guy's physical appearance, and the desire that it engenders in her, that she's willing to abandon good sense. It is something that would likely attract a different level of criticism were it not a fantasy played out by women for an audience of women. Still, it's not especially good behavior in men, and not something I would have thought that women aspired to.

Women are entitled to their own pornography, and men shouldn't be shocked that it doesn't look precisely like what we would have imagined for them. However, as with the stuff for men, we should be on the lookout for attributes and behaviors this "art form" reinforces in our culture. The way many people read Fifty Shades--skipping from one sex scene to the next--may be less unhealthy than reading the whole thing through. The actual sex they do have is much more play-acting than the truly disturbing interactions they engage in while clothed.

To her credit, Ana recognizes this and is much more disturbed by the physical "punishments" than she is by the playacting and sex games. She seems to understand that a person's fairly well-stocked toy collection is hardly as disturbing as a relationship that starts with a contract outlining what she may eat and how much sleep she should get while away from him--plus, the fact that she is to be punished if she does not fulfill these requirements. If this model of interpersonal relationships really is what women are secretly fantasizing about, Fifty Shades--and its sequels and imitators--could play a major part in forming relationships that meet these expectations. As that happens, women (including both of my daughters) will have even more difficulty negotiating the balance of power with men.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Breakfast Club

My school district's administration has experienced a fair amount of turnover lately. As each position is filled, we are made more aware of the fact that there are jobs, there are people, and there is way these elements fit together. That last aspect can be the most important of all, and requires the search committee to actually do much more than find the most qualified candidate for each position.

Since our administrators do tend to refer to themselves as a "team," I guess it's time for a sports analogy.

No it's not. Would it be that a small guard isn't able to take the place of a wingback? Is it a question of mid-fielders making bad floating half-nelsons? Does it all come down to beaters not generally being nimble enough to function as seekers? I have no idea (except for that last one, of course). Clearly I don't know enough about sports to do it this way, and I'm not going to take the time to find out. Remember, one of the goals of your Slacker is to do this whole thing without having to look anything up. If you want my one and only sports analogy, see: here.

Instead, we'll use an '80s John Hughes film. I could have done the same thing using The Princes Bride, The Simpsons, or Pulp Fiction. Perhaps I will do so in some future post, but for now here is our cast of characters:

The Princess - He or she is attractive, well-groomed, charming,  and dripping with social skills. Look for expensive haircuts, well-fitting suits, and a mouthful of flashy teeth. Ideas come to this person like the air itself, and he/she can regularly charm others into moving on these ideas before any thought has actually been applied. You'll feel really good while talking to this person, and then upon leaving his/her office discover that you've been screwed with your pants on. He/she was probably effective in the classroom, or at least appeared effective--based on the slavish devotion of students, particularly of the opposite (or gay students of the same) gender. Still, there is no question of how this person ended up in administration. Expect promotion through the ranks to the level of his/her incompetence.   

The Brain - School districts are complicated. Someone in charge should be capable of sweating the details, and interested in doing so. As a principal, this person manages the impossibly difficult tasks, like creating testing schedules and determining where each class meets. Like the prom/wedding table thing (see also:here), people of average intelligence and attention span have great difficulty with tasks like making sure that each room has only one class in it, contains only students who registered for that class, and doesn't meet last period in the fall when the teacher is almost always away with the golf team--not just a pretty good average on this stuff, based on the law of large numbers, but entirely correct. He/she may end up as your director of finance, or in charge of curriculum and instruction, but it is important that he/she have enough power to insert a dose of reality into the Big Ideas brought forth by the Princess and some of the others.

  The Athlete - Big and beefy, tall and lean, or tight and compact (depending on the sport that spawned the individual model), he/she possesses a wide smile and perhaps only average smarts. Might have had a professional sports career, except for that knee injury (possibly incurred by falling down the steps at the big frat party). You won't see any visible tattoos, but there may be Greek letters (or the name of an ex-girlfriend--note: no gender-neutral adjustment needed on that one) on his/her butt. The tattoo could also be on a calf muscle that is still too large to accommodate proper dress socks. He/she is only serving as assistant principal on a path toward athletic director. That's okay, the world needs athletic directors, and in the meantime he/she can get some real work done in terms of student discipline and morale--items that the others are too pretty or too otherwise-occupied to stay interested in.  

The Basket Case - You don't think you need this person, but you're wrong. Side note: don't think that she has spent her life waiting for The Princess to come along and put lipstick and a headband on her to let her know how pretty she is--Allison Reynolds was lots hotter before her makeover, and I'm certain that she went back to normal the next day. But I digress. This person was an art teacher, or perhaps something in special ed, and got principal certification for a reason no one can really figure out. Whatever it was, it's a good thing because he/she brings a very different skill set and thought process along. Most importantly, he/she can serve as a liaison to all of the freaks in the school--teachers and students--and make sure that they stay on the rails. Not to be overly dramatic, but this can literally save lives in the most difficult cases.  

The Criminal - This person may have been an abysmal teacher, but sometimes finds his/her stride in administration. He/she can be invaluable as a disciplinarian because having done every bad thing imaginable provides insights into the motivations of these behaviors as well as the methods of hiding them that worked best. Again, how he/she ended up with a principal certificate is something of a mystery--you'll wonder if there was an element of blackmail or other nefarious influence involved. Like the Basket Case, he/she brings a distinct advantage in interactions with certain demographics that can be most valuable. Do be careful, though, that he/she doesn't rise too far in the ranks. Reform is possible and should be celebrated when it happens, but too much power for this one may not be a great idea. 

The Principal - Not really a member of the Club, but let's not forget that it is sometimes important to have an adult in the room--even if he is a "Dick." Having to pass your ideas through someone who clearly has no patience for you can help to sharpen your argument and burn off all intellectual chaff and impurities. Also, keep in mind that Mr. Vernon spent his Saturdays at the school, attempting to keep the whole disciplinary system functioning. He's a villain for sure, but as one ages as an educator, he becomes a slightly more sympathetic one.

First Corinthians, chapter 12 has that whole bit about each part of the body having its job to do, and that a body made entirely of noses wouldn't function very well at all. An administration made up of too many of any of the above types cannot function. Too many Princesses can become an echo chamber for increasingly bizarre ideas. Too many Brains, and there will be no one there when someone needs to address a large group of people and stir them into action. Someone needs to interact with the students, someone needs make the trains run on time, someone needs to have a vision, and someone needs the ability to communicate that vision. Each type has deficits, and the proper mix will allow each of them to fill in where another isn't so strong.

Of course, no one is a perfect example of any of the types listed; each is some combination of these types and no type at all. One could rebut my thesis in the words used at the end of the movie (SPOILER ALERT!) in Brian's essay "You see us as you want to see us... In the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain...and an athlete...and a basket case..."

Still, to simply pick the very best individual, ignoring the universe he/she will inhabit, is a mistake. As any casting director will tell you, the interaction of the characters can be as important as the skills of the actors themselves. In anything beyond a fourth grade school play, the director looks beyond the actor's ability to read the lines properly--even convincingly--and tries to put an ensemble together that is more engaging and believable than any of them would be alone. A person who is perfect for a position on one team may not do so well on another. It may not be entirely fair to incorporate these factors when viewed from the candidate's perspective. It is, however, crucial to the entire operation that it not be headed by an entire team full of quarterbacks.

Monday, May 20, 2013


Writing a novel isn't that hard. This is the theory, at least, behind the National Novel Writing Month--a program successful enough that a good many people know what you mean when you say "NaNoWriMo." Putting a word like that into the language must endow its creator with a real sense of pride.

The premise of NaNoWriMo is that you don't need to quit your job to be a novelist. You don't need a particularly fancy computer, or to be an English major, or wear special clothes, or drink special coffee (or bourbon) to be a novelist. You needn't be on anti-anxiety, anti-depression, anti-psychotic, anti-inflammatory, or anti-ballistic medications to be a novelist. The only thing you need is to carve enough time out of your life to type out 50,000 words, or so.

Even though I clearly failed in this effort, I did write 19,541 words of a novel in November, which is precisely 19,541 words more of this novel than I have any other month. In fact, months later, 19,541 is still the count. In my defense, I do have a little baby in my life, and did take a graduate school class in that time, but the whole premise of NaNoWriMo is that no one has the time to do this. You just do it anyway.

While I didn't "win" in NaNoWriMo parlance by getting to 50,000 words (they don't seem to care if you just type "kill Flanders" a whole lot at the end, so winning really is an achievable goal), I did learn some things in the process that I think are worth mentioning.
  1. Writing a novel isn't that hard - This bears repeating, in part because most of us assume otherwise. We may be confusing writing a novel, which isn't hard and isn't especially rare, with making money from a novel, which certainly is. For me, it was simply a matter of thinking up a premise, inventing a character (somewhat autobiographical, so as to skimp on any kind of research), and following where he goes. 
  2. Writing a novel is probably easier for Slackers - The idea is to write a first draft of a novel, not to end up with anything polished. Much of what I wrote was terrible. Much of what I wrote will be deleted, but my goal was to spend all of the time allotted to writing engaged in typing. When I encountered a point in the story where I needed to make a decision, I just picked something. When I wrote myself into a corner, I just started somewhere else. I wasn't even aiming for 50,000 words--I was hoping for 40,000, or a B-.
  3. Writing a novel in a short amount of time helps - Another brilliant aspect of the NaNoWriMo concept is, in the words of Duke Ellington, "I don't need time, I need a deadline." I've written about deadlines before (see also: here) but the most helpful aspect with this program is the idea that you won't still be living this lifestyle on the first of December. Forgoing Facebook (which I did, somewhat), Twitter (which I did, somewhat), and housework (which I excelled in, let me just say) is hard, but less so if you know it's only temporary.
  4. Writing a novel can provide more self-discovery than a journal - I'm a terrible journal writer. I have a dozen or more journals dotted around my life that have two or three entries each. In fact, lots of people are like this as well--do a random search of Blogger and see how many entries begin with "I haven't written in a while." I haven't yet read what I wrote in November, but I do know that the things my character faced, and what he did in the face of those things, will tell me something about my true self--at least the one that existed in November. Looking inward in the process of ostensibly doing something else can yield a more honest assessment than setting out to do self-examination. I recently heard a piece on dreaming that explained that our minds are doing much the same thing throughout the night.
Which brings me to the lame excuse portion of this post. Why didn't I win NaNoWriMo? Why didn't I even meet my own depreciated goal? Why is the word-count still stuck at 19,541?

I think part of it is that November isn't such a good month for this--at least for me. For example, I think  Thanksgiving break is meant to be a helpful chunk of time towards the end of the month in which to do a final push. It probably is for young, hip people who are sitting on long flights home, and then trying to fill time between coffee dates with old friends in the morning, and get-togethers at bars with old friends in the evenings. My Thanksgiving break involves cooking a turkey, and then preparing a house--as well as later recovering a house--where that turkey to be eaten. I also needed to do a concert program, and final rehearsals, and a few other things to keep my job(s) at the end of November.

More generally, though, I think it tells me something about the power and limitations of goal-setting, particularly for Slackers. Specifically, I blame the little graphic above, and my relationship with it throughout the month. As you can see, assuming your eyesight is pretty good, and/or you're not reading this on your iPhone, I started off pretty well. In fact, given that I started a few days late, I started off really well. Then, things bogged down. Each leveled-off spot on the graph represents a day that I didn't do any writing. That meant that even if the days I did write were "on pace," I realized I was never going to make it. NaNoWriMo provides additional statistics, like how many words per day you're doing, how many needed to finish, and when you'll finish at your current pace. Each passing day, those numbers got worse and as things got worse, I apparently gave up.

I'm watching lots of my friends and colleagues get master's degrees these days; others seem to be undertaking serious weight-loss programs; still others preparing for grueling physical challenges (triathlons, marathons, mud runs, etc.). Each of these endeavors seems to have parallels to NaNoWriMo, except that success could possibly actually get you somewhere. Watching the various strategies to these large tasks is interesting, and I'm curious to see how each works out. Some post regular updates on their progress to Facebook, while others are very quiet unless you ask a direct question. Some have given themselves hard deadlines, others seem to put their heads down and don't look too far toward the horizon. Perhaps some have quietly given up, and I haven't noticed yet.

One day last summer I let MapMyRide know that I was riding my bike around the neighborhood so that I could use it to keep track of the miles I'd ridden, and the calories I could then indulge (one Hop Wallop = about five miles, in case you're wondering). Over the winter I've gotten increasingly desperate emails from them that started with "Sean, why aren't you tracking your miles?" and have progressed to "Sean, are you okay?" and most recently "Sean, why have you descended into this spiral of self-loathing?!?"

I don't know if things would have gone better if I'd let MapMyRide announce to all of my friends what I was up to. I don't know if writing in a virtual community (or a real community--NaNoWriMo hosts writing marathons at the coffee shop one town away) would be helpful. I do know that the ways in which they set, tracked, encouraged, and generally participated in my goal was very helpful. Or it wasn't. Figuring out which may be an important ingredient in the next big goal.